Firefox OS – The Mobile Web Platform That Needs To Succeed

Mozilla has thrown its hat in the ring of Mobile OS and Devices. In my opinion, it is one of the toughest markets to crack and one that pits you against Apple iOS and Google Android. The very mention of those two ecosystems is enough to strike fear into any upstart trying to take them on and establish a market share. But there is something about Mozilla and Firefox that makes me optimistic that the time is probably right because a lot of factors are coming together that might make it attractive from consumers and web developers point view.

geeksphone

This is going to be the first of many blog posts that I have planned on Mozilla Firefox OS. The latter blog posts will go into the technical details of how you can get started with Mozilla Firefox OS and develop / publish Apps. This blog post will present some of my views in no particular order on why I want Firefox OS to succeed. My points at time will go from one thread to another, but do bear with them. After all, it is in the spirit of the web that I must jump from one link to another. Don’t you too ? :-)

Here are the points in no particular order:

The Mobile Revolution has only just begun

“Darling! We have only just begun”. This is a true statement when it comes to mobile penetration across the world. We have only seen the beginning and a few years from now, the picture could be completely different. So I believe there has never been a better time for any new Mobile OS to try and explain their take on things and look to getting a marketshare. We are billions of people in the world and a 5-10% marketshare is a serious number, so never ever discount that fact. There is a need for manufacturers to compete on features, prices, applications and much more. And I am glad that Firefox OS has spelt it clearly what they are going after.

The Cost of Phones

The question of what a Smartphone should ideally cost is likely to bring up some heated debate. I am not looking at calculating the amount of time/money that it might end up saving you. In that cost v/s benefit context, you then lose your right to argue even if manufacturers push up the price of the phone high. Let us keep that debate out for now and focus on the fact that Phones ought to cost a lot cheaper than what we are being charged for it. I believe that it is not about making the cheapest phones but the need to set the right prices that could help people stop debating about the cost and get on with their work. In that context, it is refreshing to see the prices of Firefox OS devices that have come out. They are priced just about right in my opinion to make people give it a second look and then make an informed decision if the apps and other things that go along with it, should tilt the decision to buy the Firefox OS device versus another one. Speaking from an Indian context, a majority of people are just not ready to shell down anywhere between $600-800 for a phone. Yes, it will have its buyers, but won’t cut it for most. I like the prices of the Keon and Peak devices. It does not burn a hole in the pocket even for the developer to get himself/herself one phone and try things out.

The Cost of Developing Native Apps

Developing Native Apps is just not working out for majority of firms. Even the most successful ones will be able to tell you the challenges they have faced to get their Native Apps working consistently across different mobile OS. Most small firms that I know of having simply given up trying to write an iOS App, Android App, Blackberry App, Windows App, etc. They just cannot afford to hire individual programmers for each of these platforms especially when they are planning to do limited work from a product point of view. The cost is too high and most that I know have resorted to building mobile web apps that look and fit fine with a mobile browser (Responsiveness saves the day!) and others have tried to grapple with PhoneGap to address this. Mozilla Firefox OS strikes a right cord over here:

  • You can utilize easy availability of people who know a bunch of Web Technologies
  • Your investment is going to be protected. There are other web OS on the horizon like Tizen and with minor manifest stuff , pure web apps should function well. You might need to use the appropriate CSS for the platforms and native device sensor APIs but that’s about it.
  • You can use the tools that you have been using and on any platform. I know what it means to buy an iPhone, iPad and a Mac to do the development just for the sake of iOS Apps. The costs are high for most people like you and me. And we haven’t even started programming yet.

The Web Army is waiting

If there was ever the tag for the largest community of developers out there, it would be the “Web Developers”. No other community is larger and no other community has faced greater grief in finding out that their skills are not up to the mark when it came to the Android / iOS Devices. Sure it has changed over the last 2-3 years with the tremendous improvement being made on the HTML5 front and other web frameworks. The Web Browser is so powerful now, that potentially it can do anything that you can expect of native apps. Let us keep sensors aside for the moment. So in the context of Web Developers, this is a great time and an environment that Mozilla should harness and spend every energy to bring into the fold. Ensure that you have exposed as many Device APIs as possible via JavaScript. The Web Developers are itching to push the envelope there. The Mobile Web has truly arrived and the Army just needs to be given marching orders. The clarion call has to be “Go Ahead and Develop”.

Firefox OS upgrades

I am not sure what plans Mozilla has in terms of upgrading the OS and making it available to older devices, but this is a touchy topic. Mozilla is still in its early stages where the first few initial devices have come out. But put yourself one year ahead and you are likely to have 3-5 devices and a slew of OS upgrades. The big question is whether the OS upgrades will be rolled out for all users, even on older devices or not ? I think this is crucial. I have seen tons of consumers being pained when they found out that the latest OS upgrade for their favorite Mobile OS is not available for their device. This could be because the hardware is not good enough : whether it is memory, processor, screen size, etc. At the same time, consumers are not idiots. They do understand that you can’t just keep getting all the new goodies on your old devices. But what is needed instead is to try and push as much as possible. Mozilla will be best served if it can extend the life of the devices to as much as they can, give rebates for new devices from their site itself and do whatever it is to extend and build the trust that the consumer kept in Mozilla when they bought these devices in the first place. It won’t be easy because the temptation to push the envelope in performance (and this is important for the web) will be greater.

App Discovery

Anyone who has published applications to the iOS Appstore and/or Android Play Store will find that this point resonates with you. Here I am talking about individuals and small developer shops that do not have the marketing muscle and dollars to promote their applications. Executives from both these companies try to earn brownie points by telling us about the number of applications that are published on the App Store and they do give tips on how to make your app stand out and be more discoverable. But it is a lost game in my opinion. You can always try but the stakes are against you. Combine that with the fact that users are likely to only keep a few apps on their phone and they are most likely going to be the ones that are top ranked makes your task even difficult. So I am convinced that App Discovery in App Stores needs to reinvent itself completely but whether all the political forces will allow it to happen is going to make that difficult. Mozilla with its Web principles wants to make sure that as long as you have a public web site, done your SEO right, including the right webapp.manifest – chances are that you have a good shot. Discovering things via the Web is what we do anyways today with our normal Desktop browsing behaviour and hopefully this will happen on the mobile web too. It will take some unlearning from the users because everyone is used to going to an AppStore and then navigating from there.

SEO is a beast and there are firms that are gaming the system. How Firefox OS plans to tackle this is going to be interesting but I really hope that they take a different approach. I can tell you for certain that as individual developers, we are looking for breaking out of the App Store mentality to get discovered.

Let us save some bandwidth – shall we ?

How many times have you downloaded hundreds of Megabytes, only to find that after you have installed the game or App, it is not what you were looking for and promptly uninstalled it. Its happened to me and you must be joking if it has not happened with you. Now go ahead and extrapolate that problem to the millions of users out there and you see lots of wasted bandwidth that was used to download Apps that no one wanted. What if you wanted to just try out something before you make a decision to go and download the entire app. The Web makes it possible. Go ahead and put up a demo version of the app or one level of a game, make it mobile web optimized and boom you could try it within your browser itself. This is exactly what Mozilla is preaching and maybe there should be a big movement on what we could possibly do with all the bandwidth that we could potentially end up saving ?

Cost of Accessories

I have had my usual share of mobile devices that have come out in the last few years, including Smartphones and Tablets and yes – Android and iOS – both included. I love the Operating Systems and the features that they provide. Some of the devices are expensive but we have no choice there and so we buy. But the moment, you are done with purchasing these expensive devices that you realize that since you have paid a bomb for them, I should take care of them. So let me go ahead and buy a protective cover for the device or some other cute accessory or the other. And what do we find? We find an entire ecosystem of device accessories and their manufacturers who have simply hijacked it all and are charging us multiple times what the item might actually be worth. Seriously, I feel upset not at the fact that I ended up paying 3-5x what an average tablet cover might be worth but more at the way, the rip-off has become institutionalized. Folks, I really hope that Firefox OS does something about this. It is not about being cheap here, it is about paying fairly for a product. And don’t tell me that an iPad or an iPhone is a luxury item. It is supposed to be a commodity item given the times that we are living it. How Mozilla will be able to control this is beyond my understanding, but I do hope that they directly do things at a fair price from their site itself. Just show everyone the way. And better still, create iPad and Android tablet covers at a lower price and with the Firefox Logo on it :-) I am sure, people will go for it.

What Firefox OS will need to be careful about ?

Here are some points that Mozilla, in my opinion should stay away from:

  • Avoid the word “Cheap”: Do not try to sell the device just by talking about its price. It continues to amaze me how all of us humans continue to aspire big and look at expensive phones as one way of saying that we have arrived. Nothing wrong in it and instead Mozilla should clearly talk about the benefits one is getting at this price vs others. The word “cheap” should be removed.
  • Internet Connection : While one can have disconnected apps functioning purely off the device, several other apps will require that you have a good solid internet connection. This is difficult in most developing countries today and even when it is available it does cost money. So Mozilla will have to be patient with this one.
  • OS Upgrades: I mentioned this before and I feel it is important to warrant a mention here. The OS Upgrades should ideally be available to as many users owning older devices.
  • Effective Marketing: The current marketing that I see online is Mozilla sharing its vision from a Developer centric point of view. This vision is understandable to Developers and not Consumers, who will need to buy the phones. So the marketing has to switch in due course of time to Consumers and what they gain from this device. I understand the strategy to court developers first and I think it is a sound strategy because you have to win the Developers first, let them create applications and then explaining it to consumers will become a lot easier.

What a Firefox OS Device should have?

Here is my wishlist for what would make a good device:

  • Good Battery: This is easier said than done but very critical. I do not own a Firefox OS phone, so I cannot say how it performs. But Mozilla will need to pay attention to this.
  • Apps: It is going to be important to get some basic apps on the phone right away. You will need a top notch browser, email client, calling app, calendar, messaging app, Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp and a few apps like that. There cannot be a compromise on that. People need this, no matter what you think. Angry Birds falls into the “nice to have” category. I would go one step further and ask them to create a suite of top class apps that cater to a certain segment. For e.g. Students — provide a great app for taking / sharing notes, reminders and Time Table.
  • Local Language support: Support as many local languages as is possible.

Where can I get a Firefox OS phone?

I do not own a Firefox Phone as yet and every single time that I have gone to purchase it, it shows “Sold Out”. I can safely conclude that this is an issue that Mozilla must quickly address. In early days like this, it cannot be that it is wildly popular ? I do read that it has signed up with FoxConn and other hardware manufacturer’s to get things rolling in the supply chain and that is a good thing. Hope that it rolls along fast.

One last word

This is general in nature and nothing to do with Firefox OS though some people make it look like that. If you go through some of the comments that follow most Firefox announcements of late and I am sure it applies to other upcoming Mobile OS’ like Tizen, etc – you will find that a lot of people say that it will not succeed. Sure, no one knows if any product that organizations bring out in the world will succeed or not. If the magic formula was known, it would not be fun at all and there would be no innovation. The thing I want to say here is that as a human race, we cannot succeed if we are simply going to give up thinking that since someone has already done it before or has a huge market share, we cannot win ! History has consistently proven that the battle first begins in your mind and then in the playing field. And we simply cannot give up just because we might not be able to win. Winning and Losing is part of the game. Firefox OS may fail but what it will bring up is a set of lessons, which future teams will use to move forward.

FirefoxOS.2

All right then, may the Web win in the end !

P.S: Do share your comments on what you feel. I would love to hear from you.

My next series of articles will focus on the Developer and what they can do to get started with Developing Firefox OS Apps, right from installation to publishing in the marketplace. I look forward to sharing this with everyone.

The series has started off. Here is the complete series so far:

Complete Firefox OS Tutorial

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8 thoughts on “Firefox OS – The Mobile Web Platform That Needs To Succeed

  1. Hello Romin

    Good article I crossread because i’m on my mobile while my kid is fishing :) He is almost autonomous now

    THE article to write could be how to turn a ffox app into an Android app and a ios appel

    Cheers from Biscay

  2. Hi,
    Totally agree with you on the accessory ecosystem around the “luxury” devices. And yes, firefox should make covers with their own branding for their own devices as well as “luxury” devices at reasonable costs. This way, awareness and marketing about Firefox OS will boom.

    Cheers for a more optimistic Mobile eco-system.

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